UMSL historian discusses Nelson Mandela’s sports connection

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, an activist and former president of South Africa, died Dec. 5. He was 95. (IMAGELIBRARY/575 courtesy of the Library of London School of Economics and Political Science)

Chuck Korr needed only the first 25 words of his USA Today commentary to sum up what the world lost last week.

“It is hard to think of any person – political, cultural or otherwise – of the past 25 years who inspires such universal admiration as Nelson Mandela,” wrote Korr, professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

But his article didn’t generally eulogize the former South African president, who died last week at 95. Korr wrote instead about a topic the historian said was seldom associated with Mandela: sports.

Mandela, who excelled as a boxer and runner in college, worked hard to elevate South Africa to an international stage in sports like rugby, soccer and cricket, the UMSL historian said. According to Korr, the leader saw it as a way to unite a sports-obsessed country that had been deeply divided through apartheid and racism.

Chuck Korr, professor emeritus of history at UMSL

Chuck Korr is a professor emeritus of history at UMSL and co-author of “More than Just a Game.” (Photo by August Jennewein)

The New York Times also interviewed Korr for it’s essay “Mandela embraced the power of sports for resistance and unity.” The article discusses Mandela’s successful efforts to make South Africa the host country for the soccer World Cup in 2010. It was at the World Cup that Mandela made his final public appearance.

“In his view, it was validation of the new South Africa,” Korr told The New York Times. “Mandela believed it showed the rest of the world they belonged.”

Korr, with Marvin Close, wrote “More than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told,” which chronicles soccer’s impact on the lives of the political prisoners on Robben Island where Mandela was held captive for more than 27 years.

Visit the USA Today website to read Korr’s full commentary. Visit The New York Times website to read the full essay featuring Korr’s comments.

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